(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Recording review - The Moondoggies, Adiós, I’m a Ghost (2013)

Formless album doesn't fly

It’s a flippant title but Adiós, I’m a Ghost sets the mood for this collection of disparate songs. But rather than cheekiness, abandonment is the unifying thread as the Moondoggies drift from proclamatory indie rock to ruminative folk sounds and beyond. On the surface, the songs work the idea of loss, from the girlfriend leaving in “Red Eye” to the singer who “can’t take it anymore,” on “Back to the Beginning”. But the theme runs even deeper within band’s psyche. Guitarist Kevin Murphy summed up the group’s intention behind the project, “I hope this album relays our want to have no form.” Turning away from their Americana roots, the Moondoggies accomplished their goal, but the net result is disappointingly uneven.

The songs themselves aren't bad, taken in isolation, but the group maintains their distance and rarely commits to the tunes. The lack of flow makes it harder to take any particular turn very seriously. “Pride” is a great example; it’s a melancholy folk tune that tells a dark story of isolation, suicide and self-recrimination. It’s a powerful piece that could anchor the project. Perhaps thinking along those lines, the Moondoggies bookend the album with samples from “Pride”: “I’m a Ghost” and “Adiós, I’m a Ghost” each use a piece of the ethereal choral moan from the track. It’s a bit clever, but that cuteness undercuts the poignant depth of the tune. They also shortchange the song’s punch by sticking it between the breezy oldies sound of “Midnight Owl” and the trippy rock of “A Lot to Give”.

As a result, the more self-contained rockers like “A Lot to Give” are the songs that fare best. That particular track is my favorite because it stands strong even in the emotional wake of “Pride”. The opening moments immediately clear the slate with a quick drum fill and an intriguing instrumental intro. The bass lays down a pensive, trudging line while the guitar accents the off-beat and a retro organ chord mortars the gaps. The psychedelic feel builds when the vocals come in. The first line is sung together, “I forgive and I forget the ones that I love most,” but then individual parts fall like dominos: “Even though,” “do you suppose?” “I don’t know.” It’s a cool technique that reminds me of Jefferson Airplane’s old arrangements. It doesn't hurt that one of the boys could easily pass for Marty Balin, which evokes the Airplane and mid-‘70s Starship on several of these songs. “A Lot to Give” overcomes the directionless feel of the playlist by creating its own space over the course of six minutes. In fact, the bombastic chorus is theatrical enough that I've forgotten “Pride” within the first two minutes. The bridge intensifies the Jefferson Airplane effect: the instrumental lead resurrects a touch of “White Rabbit”, while the vocal melody borrows from “Come Up the Years”. The lengthy outro sets a more modern tone that pushes the song beyond its influences. I can appreciate that the Moondoggies want to reject form and predictability, but an album of material like this would have made my top of the year list.

The more I listen to Adiós, I’m a Ghost, the more I want to dissect its tracks into a set of playlists. Then “Red Eye”, “Start Me Over”, “One More Chance”, and “Back to the Beginning” could coalesce their indie jangle and “Midnight Owl” could better complement “Stop Signs” in retro goodness. If the band refuses to give me context, I’ll create my own.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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